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Background Checks and Wisconsin



Background check authorities regularly stop prohibited purchasers from making illegal gun purchases in Wisconsin. And yet Wisconsin has not closed the unlicensed sale loophole, meaning that people prohibited from owning guns can take advantage of a thriving market for unlicensed sales—and get armed illegally. As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has intensified our country’s gun violence crisis, it’s now more important than ever for Congress to take swift action by passing legislation to update our background check system.

Wisconsin has already taken action relating to firearm background checks, addressing the Charleston loophole and requiring prohibiting mental health records to be submitted to the federal background check system.

Felons, domestic abusers, and other people prohibited from owning guns attempt to buy them regularly  in Wisconsin—and are stopped because of a background check. 

  • Since 1998, more than 35000 sales to prohibited purchasers in Wisconsin have been denied. Each year, the background check system blocks more than 600 illegal sales to convicted felons and over 500 illegal sales to domestic abusers.1Karberg JC, Frandsen RJ, Durso JM, Buskirk TD, Lee AD. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Background checks for firearm transfers, 2015 – Statistical tables. Data for 2016 through 2019 were obtained by Everytown from the FBI directly. Though the majority of the transactions and denials reported by FBI and BJS are associated with a firearm sale or transfer, a small number may be for concealed carry permits and other reasons not related to a sale or transfer.
  • The Wisconsin Department of Justice (WI DOJ) and the FBI are responsible for background checks at the point of purchase for handguns and long guns, respectively, and the Wisconsin Legislature has helped these agencies block illegal purchases. 
    • In 2015, the Legislature addressed the “Charleston Loophole” by giving the WI DOJ additional time to complete a background check before a handgun sale may proceed.22015 Wisconsin Senate Bill 35. The WI DOJ has five working days after a background check is requested to make a determination regarding whether a potential purchaser is prohibited from possessing a firearm. 
    • In 2010, the Legislature required prohibiting mental health records to be submitted to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).32009 Wisconsin Senate Bill 44. As of December 2020, Wisconsin had submitted over 43,000 prohibiting mental health records to NICS.4Federal Bureau of Investigation, Active Records in the NICS Indices by State, accessed February 22, 2021,

Wisconsin has not closed the unlicensed sale loophole, enabling prohibited purchasers to skip a background check by seeking out an unlicensed seller, who is not required to run a background check, at a gun show or online. Dramatic research shows the scale of this gaping loophole, as the vast market for no-questions-asked online gun sales has soared during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

  • An investigation of the online gun market (“Armslist”) revealed a massive marketplace where unchecked gun sales are taking place between complete strangers meeting online, allowing criminals and other prohibited purchasers an easy avenue for access.
  • Each year, there are an average of nearly 48,000 ads on Armslist in Wisconsin for firearm sales that would not require a background check.5Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. Unchecked: An Investigation of the Online Firearm Marketplace. February 2021.
  • Each one of those posts is an opportunity for a prohibited purchaser to acquire a gun. And research shows prohibited purchasers actively seek out these unregulated ads: In 2018, one in nine people looking to buy guns from unlicensed sellers would have failed a background check, a rate seven times higher than the denial rate at gun stores.6Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Unchecked.”
  • Throughout the pandemic, demand for guns from the online marketplace has dramatically increased. The surge in demand at gun stores has been well documented, but research shows the surge extends to sales that can take place with no background check. The average number of posts on Armslist between March and September 2020 by people across the US looking to purchase a firearm in states that do not require background checks on all sales doubled over the same period in 2019.
  • Critics of background check laws claim they will not make a difference in how guns are sold. But Everytown’s investigation showed that laws matter. Unlicensed sellers in states that have passed background check laws show a high degree of compliance—with 84 percent of sellers from states with background check laws directly stating the sale would need a check, and only 6 percent of the unlicensed sellers in states without background check laws indicating a background check was required.

Too many Wisconsinites are killed or wounded with guns, costing the state billions of dollars.

  • Every year, more than 600 Wisconsinites are killed with guns and nearly 1,100 more are shot and wounded.7Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Fatal Injury Reports. A yearly average was developed using five years of most recent available data: 2015 to 2019; Ted R. Miller and David Swedler, analysis of HCUP nonfatal injury: 2017.
  • Gun violence costs Wisconsin $3.9 billion each year, of which $139 million million is paid by taxpayers.8Ted R. Miller, analysis of CDC fatal injury: 2018 and HCUP nonfatal injury: 2017.
  • State laws requiring background checks for all handgun sales – by point-of-sale check and/or permit – are associated with lower firearm homicide rates, lower firearm suicide rates and lower firearm trafficking.9Michael Siegel and Claire Boine, What Are the Most Effective Policies in Reducing Gun Homicides? Albany, NY: Rockefeller Institute of Government, March 2019.;  Eric W. Fleegler, Lois K. Lee, Michael C. Monuteaux, David Hemenway, and Rebekah Mannix, “Firearm Legislation and Firearm-Related Fatalities in the United States,” JAMA Internal Medicine 173,no. 9 (2013): 732-740; Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, and Maria T. Bulzacchelli, “Effects of State-Level Firearm Seller Accountability Policies on Firearm Trafficking,” Journal of Urban Health 86, no. 4 (July 2009): 525–537. Federal law bars felons from having firearms but does not bar misdemeanors outside the domestic violence context. Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, Emma Beth McGinty, and Ted Alcorn, “Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals Through Effective Firearm Sales Laws,” in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis, 109-121. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. A 2019 analysis found that states that require a background check on all gun sales have homicide rates 10 percent lower than states without them.10Michael Siegel and Claire Boine, What Are the Most Effective Policies in Reducing Gun Homicides? (Albany, NY: Rockefeller Institute of Government, March 2019)

Congress can blunt the dangers of the online gun marketplace by requiring background checks on all gun sales—without creating burdens for gun buyers. The proposal in Congress would require an unlicensed seller and potential buyer to go to a gun store to facilitate the background check. This would be the exact same process used when a person buys a gun directly from a gun store. It is convenient to find a licensed dealer in Wisconsin and complete a background check. 

  • Requiring background checks on all gun sales would not be burdensome to law-abiding Wisconsinites. In fact, 99.6 percent of Wisconsinites live within 10 miles of a gun dealer—so it’s easy and convenient to get the background check done.11Everytown analysis of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) dealers and U.S. population. Data on licensed gun dealers were obtained from the ATF through October 2020 here: . Data on census block groups were obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau here: Distance was calculated between the centroid of each census block group and each licensed dealer to determine the closest dealer. There are more than 1,400 unique gun dealers in Wisconsin, five times as many McDonald’s and two times as many post offices in the state.12Federal Firearms Listings. Washington, D.C. ATF. Analyses were done to determine the latitude and longitude of each licensed dealer and duplicates by latitude, longitude, and state were removed; Andrews, Colman. Is your state ‘lovin’ it’? A look at where the most McDonald’s are located in the US. USA Today.; Postmaster Finder. Washington, D.C. United States Postal Service.

Loopholes in the background check law enable gun trafficking in Wisconsin.

  • Existing loopholes in the background check law in Wisconsin are negatively impacting gun trafficking within the state. Research has shown that state laws requiring background checks for all handgun sales are associated with 48 percent lower rates of gun trafficking in cities and 29 percent lower rates of gun trafficking across state lines.13Michael Siegel and Claire Boine, What Are the Most Effective Policies in Reducing Gun Homicides? (Albany, NY: Rockefeller Institute of Government, March 2019)
  • Between 2015 and 2019, nearly 19,000 crime guns were recovered in Wisconsin. Ninety-four percent of these crime guns originated in states that do not require a background check on all gun sales, including 83 percent of which originated in Wisconsin.14Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Firearms trace data. Totals were developed using five years of most recent available data: 2015 to 2019.
  • And the unregulated, online marketplace has enabled prohibited purchasers to weaken state background check laws by traveling to neighboring states without these laws. Between 2016 and 2017, three individuals were arrested for trafficking an estimated 90 firearms purchased on and Facebook into Illinois from Kentucky. These firearms were subsequently linked to violent crimes in Illinois.15Yablon A. Chicago felons busted for gun trafficking bought weapons via Armslist and Facebook. The Trace. May 16, 2018. Available at

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